Slums are good news – to a lot of people, except for those who live there, of course. I would call them a parallel universe, because other than our own universe, we have no idea of any others in the galaxy, or if we do, they are coloured by fantasy and fiction at best. Likewise what we know about slums is gleaned from the outside which put us off, or from films which invest them with a glamour they least possess. When they co-existed with the high-rises sometimes a mere wall separated the two universes. But urban realities and compulsions have made it necessary to relocate them – outside the city, out of sight.
These resettlement colonies are no better than the ones they had been forced to vacate. With little or no infrastructure, no sanitation worth mentioning, sporadic or no water supply, no sewage or waste disposal systems to speak of — these slums are dens of disease, crime and misery.
My maid lives in one of these resettlement colonies and commutes to work every day. I cluck sympathetically when she tells me about the overflowing drains, the mosquitoes and the stench. But what she told me last week, made me feel terrible. Her teenage daughter was suffering from diarrhea. That itself could have been taken care of with medicines and ORS, but it was worse. The girl had to go to the toilet and in a hurry at night. With the toilet complex being far from her house, she accompanied her but the place was dark and some drunken youth were loitering around. Scared to go further, she stood there, the girl in agony, till a couple of more people came along and went with them.
How many of us can identify with this basic need of another human being? We want them out of sight, but do we think of them as fellow humans? That is why I referred to slums as ‘another universe.’
Call them anything – slums, shanty towns, favela, jhuggi jhopdi or simply ‘colony’ — they are here to stay. Understandably, slums are a byproduct of urbanization and there are slums in many developing countries, some of them bigger than even Dharavi or others of its kind, as migrants pour into the cities in search of livelihood. While some slums are much better off in terms of infrastructure and basic amenities, others wallow in filth. But in India, slums are uniformly filthy and living conditions inhuman.
And yet, these are goldmines for a whole lot of people who live off and thrive on them, much as vultures feed on the weak and the dying. The most important ones among them are the politicians. Many a politician has made his/her fortune by ‘nurturing’ these hell-holes. The sequence goes something like this:
They first allow slums to proliferate and then regularize them — issue identity cards and create a vote bank — come to power riding on their votes — bow down to pressure from the residents of the housing colonies around and relocate the slum, by leasing out the land to them large enough to build a shack, often with just a tin sheet or even a plastic sheet held down by rocks and bricks for a roof — let them fester in the filth till another election looms ahead — make a beeline to their miserable shacks and again beg for votes.
Slums are the biggest and cheapest vote banks. Minority, caste, regional or the intellectual vote banks come at a price, often a steep one. A slum dweller on the other hand will take a thousand rupees or less and a bottle of booze to press the button on the EVM. The goons make sure the beneficiaries of this largesse vote for their respective candidates. Though the ballot is supposed to be secret, they can smell the fear in the voters and cash in on that. The illiterate migrants often are too scared of losing their shack, the lives of their menfolk and their daughters. With such incentives and terror tactics, is it any wonder that there is such a huge turnout from the poorer sections come voting time, who tilt the balance in favour of the bigger benefactor/goon?
Now, who else benefits from the misery of the slum dwellers? Take a look at the other beneficiaries, notably the various mafia:
- There is a land mafia in the slums, more powerful and dirtier than that in the other universe. It deals in malba (debris), not land. My friend once loaned her maid Rs.25,000 to buy a one room shack. I was aghast when the maid produced a sheet torn from a notebook where the seller had ‘sold’ the malba to her. My friend told me that she had seen such ‘documents’ where bigger money had exchanged hands transacting such ‘debris’. One can imagine how and illegal occupancy, extortion and such are common in their Universe. Fear and power go hand in hand.
- Then there is the builder’s mafia — not the five-star builders who high-rise construct condos for the well-heeled, but those that build five storeys on a 10×10 or smaller plot. A feat of engineering, but with disastrous results.
- The electricity is ‘sold’ by the electricity mafia. A single meter supplies power to dozens of houses for a fee ranging from Rs.200-1000 depending upon the appliances being used. Appliances, in slums? Well, they even have ACs in some dwellings. Remember there are also houses with several storeys? And sometimes the power is simply ‘taken’ from the power supply pole and then sold. Talk of business sense!
- BPL cards are denied or given depending upon the ‘connections’ of the slum dweller. Read related news item here. My maid has already spent more than Rs.5000 to grease several palms to get hers. She has now given up in disgust . I am sure this is one way of verifying whether someone is BPL or not. After all, how can someone living on Rs.28 afford to pay so much as bribe? Well done, PC!!
- There are fixers to get everything done in a slum. You need a ration card? An identity card? A gas connection? They will do it for a price. Any movement against corruption is meaningless when your survival depends on the corrupt and the unscrupulous who feed on others’ misery. It is not the middle class that suffers because of corruption but these poor people.
- Then there are the industries. Some of them illegal, dangerous and clandestine — they operate from the miserable confines of the narrow alleys. Dharavi is a well-known business hub. It even exports goods worth tens of crores! Namkeens and papads are some of the food items made in these slum homes. One can imagine the hygiene of the places and the workers who make them.
- And don’t forget the film makers. Where would they all go if not for the slums and the millions of stories hidden in their alleys? No less than two dozen films have been made on Dharavi alone – one of the biggest slums the world, both national and international including the hit film Slumdog Millionaire.
- I recently read that reality tours of slums are the latest attraction offered by tour operators the world over including Dharavi in Mumbai. Talk of glamourising poverty!
- And the people who employ them — us. We make use of their labour too and not all of us give them the dignity they deserve as human beings. We only see them, not their life as a whole and so can’t appreciate the colossal misery they live with.
We are demanding the safety of our women who can’t go out freely at night or even the day. We cry foul that our women can’t go to the pub for a drink in the wee hours without fear of being molested. But can we spare a thought for the miserable inhabitants of this other Universe, where women have to dread even going to the toilet at night with their daughters? Are they not women whose safety is of concern? Or does being poor make them less of a woman?
Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs? More importantly, who is responsible for providing basic sanitation and other amenities to the slum-dwellers? The party voted to power in the municipal elections with their votes? The party ruling the state? The Central government? All of them? None?
(Do read the related post The great Divide)
(Image on Home Page: dharavischool.org)